The Risk of Water Shortage and Implications for Ukraine’s Security

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 77


An abnormally dry fall, lack of meteorological winter and an early spring drought have nearly turned some regions of Ukraine into a desert. Between September 2019 and May 2020, only 70 percent of the normal amount of precipitation (153 out of an average rate of 211 millimeters) fell in Ukraine. The lack of 58 mm of precipitation translates to a 35-trillion-liter deficit of water for Ukraine. The country’s main rivers and water reservoirs have not filled up with water this year; thus, Ukraine’s main waterways are experiencing unfavorable hydrological conditions. The Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Center has called the situation critical (, May 12). For the first time in 120 years, Ukraine may need to restrict its citizens’ constitutional water use rights. The legal grounds for such a move resets with the State Water Resources Agency (, March 3).

On May 13, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine’s (NSDC) working group on water resource security held a meeting to discuss the water shortage. This assembly convened representatives of various ministries, departments and research institutions. NSDC Secretary Oleksiy Danilov emphasized that, due to the shallowing of rivers, Ukraine may face a shortage of drinking water. Thus, the strategic task is to ensure the water security of the state in the conditions of climate change. He also stated that it is necessary to develop a water strategy for Ukraine to optimize the domestic consumption of water and to attract additional financial resources for the modernization of the country’s centralized water supply systems in order to provide the population with high-quality drinking water. Among other things, Danilov drew attention to the importance of conducting a complete inventory of potable groundwater sources and artesian wells in order to integrate them into working water-supply systems (, May 13).

The last “census” of Ukrainian rivers was carried out back in 1957, and counted 63,000 rivers (, November 17, 2019). But according to the National Ecological Center of Ukraine (NECU), during the years of Ukrainian independence, more than 10,000 rivers have disappeared throughout the country, while numerous rivers, lakes and reservoirs have shallowed out. Some of the most dramatic examples of drops in the water level occurred on the Irpen (a right tributary of the Dnieper) and Bucha rivers in the Kyiv region, the Teteriv River in Zhytomyr region (also a right tributary of the Dnipro River), as well as the Carpathian rivers Zbruch and Nichlava (, January 30). Whereas the Transcarpathian rivers Tovmachyk, Bystrytsia Solotvynska, Murafa (left tributary of the Dnister), and part of the Ros River (a right tributary of the Dnieper) in Bohuslav Kyiv Oblast have almost completely dried up (, May 15). The Desna and the Dnieper rivers have also significantly shallowed (, May 5). The highest risk of water shortages is in the Odesa, Kherson, Nikolaev, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhya regions. All this could lead to a limitation or complete cessation of navigation via Ukraine’s main waterways. Importantly, this may interfere with the realization of the transnational (Poland–Belarus–Ukraine) E40 Waterway project, which has geopolitical, military-strategic and geo-economic importance for Ukraine (see EDM April 28, May 13).

The country’s remaining rivers are only about 70 percent full and are silting up (, January 30). According to Oleksandr Chystyakov, the head of the NECU, this is negatively affecting the rivers’ hydrological cycles and contributing to intense pollution (, March 8). In 2019, over two billion cubic meters of various effluents were discharged into Ukrainian water reservoirs; one third of them have still not been cleaned up (, January 30). As a result, last year, most aquatic resources living in 2,140 Ukrainian water reservoirs have died. Also, because of this pollution, the water from these contaminated reservoirs cannot be used for drinking. Even though Ukraine supposedly has (according to early-Soviet statistics) 63,000 rivers, 400,000 ponds and 1,100 usable water reservoirs, the country is considered to have a low water supply. According to the World Bank, Ukraine occupies 125th place (between Chad and Sudan) out of 180 countries in terms of drinking water per capita (, March 8). The water security of the country is at stake.

The water deficit will additionally likely have an adverse effect on the domestic economy. Agriculture and industry are the main water consumers in Ukraine. Agriculture uses 70 percent of the available water (mainly for irrigation) and about 20 percent goes to industrial production; the rest is dedicated to household needs. Since agriculture is one of the most important engines of the Ukrainian economy (in some years, providing up to 40 percent of the country’s GDP), water shortages may become a serious challenge for the state budget (, May 21). The lack of water is already threatening future harvests, compelling Ukrainian farmers to sound the alarm. They are forecasting a 25–30 percent reduction in yields this year, compared to the previous year. Almost 95 percent of Ukraine’s gross harvest of wheat and barley consists of winter crops. According to the chairperson of the Agrarian Union of Ukraine, Gennady Novikov, the situation in the main “grain-bearing” areas of the country (Kherson, Odessa and Mykolaiv regions) is catastrophic. Even in Bessarabia—normally not a particularly arid region—only 10 percent of wheat and 20 percent of rapeseed crops may survive (, May 12). Given the fact that grain exports are not regulated or limited by the state, coupled with a likely much-lower-than-expected harvest this year, the country’s food security is also a serious issue to watch for (, May 6).

Water infrastructure is not only a matter of environmental safety and human health, it also impacts national security. Climate change is affecting the whole world to various degrees, but Ukraine has its own local specificity—dry grass burning, illicit forest logging, the building of illegal dams on rivers, unlawful amber mining—which exacerbate trends toward ecological catastrophe. With its huge economic problems, war in Donbas and territories under foreign occupation, Ukraine’s national security resources are already stretched incredibly thin and probably could not deal with another simultaneous existential crisis. The water security of the country will need to be taken up as an acute priority of the Ukrainian government before the situation devolves further.